The psyche of a man who dedicates five years of his life to a project like this is hard to decipher.
Ben Player is a 3x World Bodyboarding Champion who’s achieved everything in a sport that prides itself in pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the ocean. Long the shunned stepchild of the surfing world, bodyboarders have resorted to riding waves that are impossible to do so on an upright craft. This, and their unquenchable thirst for exploration and adventure, has thrust them back into the limelight, and rightly so. Countless number of the waves now considered the heaviest on the planet were originally found, and ridden, by bodyboarders.
Far North is the product of five years of Ben’s life, and it features some of the most stunning cinematography I’ve seen in a “surf” movie. Filmed in the deliberately cryptic “north Europe” the film sees Ben stake out, and in turn surf, some of the most perfectly terrifying rock shelves the surfing world has seen. I checked in with Ben to get the background on the project, and to find out whether—taking into account the terrifying injury that he suffered in his pursuit of his creative vision—it was worth it.
Watching the film, it’s striking how well the setting is portrayed. It’s dark and desolate, and feels hostile. Ben explains that of all the elements that made the film what it is, conveying the setting was one of the hardest. “We were on location for six weeks,” says Ben. “Everyday we’d be up in the dark and out hunting waves all day. The motivation to even go outside in the ice and snow, and how to translates into a visual medium, was super challenging.” The team resisted the temptation to resort to the tired and tested voiceover. Ben expresses disdain for such lazy storytelling, and states that to make the film in any way “Hollywood,” would do the underground nature of bodyboarding a disservice. “At the end of the day the film’s about just how volatile Mother Nature can be up there, it’s not about ‘defying death stunts,’ ” he says.
The waves in Far North transcend the bodyboarding/surfing divide. Simply put, you haven’t seen slabs this cold, this dangerous, and this perfect before. The visual quality of the action in the film is something that’s not lost on Ben, and his pride in the struggles that he and the crew went through in order to get the footage is evident.
“The margins are so small that you end up making decisions that you shouldn’t,” explains Ben. “One of the standout sessions of the movie—the big right-hander—was actually on our first day. The waves were big and scary and I was like ‘Holy shit! This is what the film needs.’ But at the same time I didn’t want to go out. Being me I procrastinated, and as a result, it got more and more dangerous, but I had to get out there. The first wave I got demolished, smashed my face on the reef and almost dislocated my shoulder. I wanted to curl up in a ball somewhere warm and leave—but it was my investment and I had to get back out there and do it. It really felt like Scotland was trying to kill me at times.”
During the filming of Far North, Ben came close to disaster on numerous occasions, from blacking out underwater, to losing his board and having to bodysurf a wave into, and subsequently climb, a fifty-metre cliff. But the climactic, trip-ending injury, nearly cost Ben his life. In Ireland, after a bad wipeout, Ben tore his spleen and nearly bled to death. Some hardy mates and efficient work by the emergency services saved Ben’s life, but the Far North dream that had consumed Ben’s life for the best part of five years, was very much over. And it happened fast. It’s fitting then, that the film ends in the exact same way. Ben goes down, gets strapped to a spinal board, airlifted out, and that’s it. “I didn’t want a Hollywood ending, I wanted it to be original and it was totally intentional to end the film like that,” says Ben.”The reality is that there’s consequence to what we do, and that’s what I wanted to get across. It’s ok to fail, you can’t win against the elements.” I suggest that to end the movie on a fabricated high would be to sell it short, as the reality of a lengthy spell in hospital is far from glamourous. “Exactly,” Ben echoes. “There’s nothing glamorous about wearing a hospital gown with no undies. The reality of it is that I got beaten, and I’m proud of it, and it was the best journey ever.”
On reflection, it’s obvious that the process of making Far North was an enlightening process for Ben. From production to discovering new spots, surfing perfect and dangerous waves to editing, Ben’s produced something that’s monumental in its scope as well as its originality. However, surprisingly, the most prominent thing that he says that he’s taken away from the experience is the true meaning of camaraderie. “It was the first time in my career that I felt like part of a team,” Ben says. “If you’re a surfer you’re out there by yourself, but with everyone involved in the film we had a common focus. I usually think that everything I do only affects me, but the consequence of my injury affected everyone around me: the crew, my friend Jack who broke his elbow trying to get the helicopter in, my friends and family. It was the first time that I really realised the repercussions of what I do. It was an empowering realisation.”